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FridayJune 2012

This is what we hope will be an introduction to an ongoing discussion about what is happening with the Ypsilanti Public School District. As many of you know, the district is in financial distress (that’s understating it), which has led to school closings and other cuts (including teachers and support staff). To commemorate the last day of the 2011-12 school year today, we open the conversation now.

Sitting around the virtual table today, we have Maria Cotera, Elsa Musko, and Amy Sumerton.

Maria Cotera has been in Ypsilanti for a little over a decade. She and her husband, Jason, are transplants from California, where they both went to school. Though they both teach at the University of Michigan, they settled in Ypsi because of its strong sense of community and its ethnic/racial/class diversity. Their daughter, Penelope, has been in Ypsi schools since kindergarten.

Elsa Musko is a recent graduate of Kalamazoo College and an In-School Residency intern at 826michigan. In a little over a week, she’ll begin the ELMAC (Elementary Education Masters & Certification) program at the University of Michigan in continuation of her quest to become a super-teacher.

Amy Sumerton has served as the program director of 826michigan since it opened in 2005. She developed their In-School Residency program, which has provided in-class support to public-school teachers for the last four years.

We’ve asked all three women the same four questions. Here is what they had to say.

1. What is your relationship to Ypsilanti Public Schools?

Maria Cotera: My daughter, Penelope (Peeps), started in Ypsi schools at the city-wide kindergarten program at Perry. The Ypsilanti Public School system offers parents the opportunity to choose which elementary school their child attends once they are done at Perry, so we visited all four public elementary schools in town (at the time). We ended up choosing Chapelle Community School, which we loved from the moment we stepped through its doors at the open house. I remember walking through the halls, and feeling this sense of community, intimacy, creativity, and ease. The walls were covered with beautiful art, the teachers were smiling and helpful, the children were vivacious and happy, families and children clearly felt that Chapelle was their space. In the two years that our daughter attended Chapelle, that experience only deepened. Chapelle was a unique place, the kind of intimate, diverse, and creative learning environment that all parents want for their children. The principal (Joe Guillen, bless him), and the teachers were so open to parents and all our wacky ideas about what we could bring to the school (I suggested a school chicken yard, and Joe didn’t kick me out of his office). The school had excellent partnerships with FLY Art and other community organizations—and it’s where Peeps first started working with 826michigan. Chapelle was a school that truly seemed integrated into the community in just a very organic way. For us, it represented a kind of dream of what Ypsilanti, as a whole, could be. Unfortunately, it was closed due to our district’s terminal budget shortfall, and though we fought the closure, and felt betrayed and saddened when it was approved by a majority of the Ypsi Board of Education, we do feel that we learned something in the process — something about what a school can and should be, something about the importance of public schools to our sense of community and place, to our shared vision. Currently Peeps is attending Estabrook Elementary, where she is thriving under the dedicated and creative guidance of Beth Koryzno, a master teacher. She has a wonderful art teacher Mr. Trax, and a passionate music teacher, Ms. Weiler, both of whom have taught her about so much more than just art and music (Mr. Trax, a comic book enthusiast, who my daughter calls “weird in a GOOD way”, turned her on to the movie Napoleon Dynamite — genius). Anyway, we are happy with Ypsi schools, if not with the recent decisions of the YPSD administration.

Elsa Musko: As on-site coordinator for four of 826michigan’s in-school residencies I spend fifteen hours per week volunteering in four Ypsilanti Public Schools. My fellow 826 volunteers and I work one-on-one and in small groups with students on writing assignments, circulate around classes during whole group lessons, and generally lend an extra of hands to ten hardworking teachers.

Amy Sumerton: I started working at 826michigan seven years ago. At the start, our in-school program essentially provided one- or two-session workshops to area teachers. The more teachers I met and talked to, though, the more apparent it became that, while those workshops were a nice supplement, they weren’t providing the kind of assistance most teachers wanted. With classroom sizes swelling ever bigger each year, what teachers really needed was a small army of helpers to come in every week. I happened to know just such a small army: Our volunteer base.

Four years ago, we piloted this program in three Ypsilanti schools: Adams, Erickson, and Chapelle, working with a handful of teachers. (Maria, I share your warm feelings toward the incredible Joe Guillen — who was reasonably skeptical when I walked into his office offering free help and later a huge advocate of ours — and his marvelous staff, several of whom we are still working with.)

We now work in Adams, Erickson, Perry, Ypsilanti Middle School, and Ypsilanti High. Next year, we’ll add Estabrook to the list. (The new principal there, Karla Graessley, was in that very first crop of teachers we worked with at Erickson when she taught second grade there, and we quite literally could not love her more.)

2. What’s the current situation in YPSD from your point of view?

Maria: Like many small districts in the state that have been victimized by chronic underfunding and a profoundly dysfunctional (and inequitable) funding formula, YPSD is in dire straits. Over the last few years our deficit has ballooned, despite draconian cuts and school closures (which by all evidence, have actually worsened the problem). The district remains vibrant because of a dedicated crew of master teachers and experienced in-school administrators, but increasingly, they are being asked to take up the slack and provide (out of pocket) supplies, teaching materials and snacks, even as they are asked to take steep pay cuts. Staff at all levels have had to endure pay cuts and lay-offs. We have consolidated the busing service which has lead to more restricted services, and we are on the cusp of privatizing our janitorial services. Our enrollments are declining drastically (last year alone we lost 120 students), which continues to negatively impact our bottom line. In our most recent Deficit Elimination Plan (required by the state for all districts operating in deficit), the administration initially proposed closing three additional schools: Adams, Erickson, and New Tech (a successful new high school) which would have left us with just one elementary, one middle school, and one high school. Luckily, the Board of Education responded to public outcry and voted that plan down in favor of a plan that called for drastic staffing reductions, and the closure of just one school. Honestly, I’m not sure what the future of Ypsi Schools is. Indeed in this climate, it’s hard to see any but the wealthiest school districts surviving, and even more prosperous schools, with more “homogeneous” middle-class student populations are facing some pretty dire financial futures. The Washtenaw Intermediate School District and the State Board of Education have been encouraging us to consider consolidating with Willow Run Community Schools, but given that both districts are struggling (and for some of the same reasons), its hard to imagine that consolidation, without serious incentives from the state (debt forgiveness, anyone?) would resolve the problems we face. To my mind, one of the biggest challenges we face is declining enrollments. It seems that people, even some right-thinking progressives in Ypsi, have lost faith in our public schools. So how do we renew the promise of public schools? We don’t do it by disciplinary regimes that fall most heavily on our neediest populations, we don’t do it by cutting out all the “extras” that keep kids interested in school (athletics, band, theater, dance, etc), we don’t do it by narrowing our curricular mission or tailoring it to testing regimes, and we certainly don’t do it by closing schools and decreasing parental “choice.” We do it by re-envisioning the schools as laboratories for democracy and community.

Elsa: YPSD faces many challenges that are synonymous with the so-called urban public education crisis in the United States: Budgets are shrinking, class sizes are growing, and job security for teachers is fading. The greatest challenge is to ensure students receive a consistent, high-quality education in the midst of such struggles. This is an enormous undertaking when, as a teacher, you do not have resources so basic as books or even paper to use in the classroom. It is demoralizing to be sure, and student achievement suffers as a direct result.

Amy: I think Maria did a great job of long-story-shorting the many factors. I’m sure Elsa and I could provide pages and pages of anecdotal evidence about the negative effects these factors are having on the students and teachers in Ypsilanti schools.

To put it as simply as possible, Ypsi schools is currently suffering from having to rely on imperfect solutions to solve big problems. The dam is continually springing a new leak, and whatever cork is close enough, regardless of fit, has to be used. In my view, there is a feeling that there is no time to sit back and look at the big picture. For example, the two second-grade classrooms at Erickson last year started out with thirty-four students each. (Not only is this well over the limit — and an impossible number of students for one teacher to connect with on any given day — but I encourage you to picture what a classroom sized for about twenty-five students looks like when you add in all the desks and chairs — and students — that overage includes.) There wasn’t money to hire another teacher, so they reorganized things such that one of the third grades became a two-three split. Imperfect? Absolutely. Good for the students? Probably not. Were there any other choices? It sure didn’t seem like it.

Ypsi is teeming with dynamic and dedicated teachers who are wholly devoted to their students. This is one of the most important resources a district can have. The teachers we work with are always willing to stay late to talk to me; they offer to come to 826 in the evenings to help us put together chapbook anthologies of the writing from their classrooms (we never accept this offer!); they buy supplies without reservation if it will enhance their students’ experience. They are excited to talk about new ideas and endlessly interested in creative initiatives. They are OPEN — to unusual methods, to help — and that is something that the community at large should be forever grateful for.

Many of these teachers are leaving work today, the last day of the school year, with no idea if they’ll have a job in the fall or not. (Teachers with less seniority were sent email notification that between now and the start of the next school year, they may receive a letter that will let them know they’ve been laid off. That basically makes for a long walk to the mailbox every day this summer.)

3. What would you like to see happen/what would your recommendations be?

Elsa: As a part of 826michigan I work with truly phenomenal teachers; teachers who are dedicated to their students’ success, creative in the classroom, and optimistic about the future. Many YPSD students come from unstable homes, and these teachers are a consistently positive adult figure in their lives. That role alone is invaluable. If all schools could attract and retain this caliber of teacher, I believe that other problems would fade with time. Consistency is key for student success. I have faith that the teachers I know are flexible enough to work around budget constraints while offering students a stable education. With time, my hope is that policy will catch up to what teachers already know: Students deserve more out of public education.

Amy: I echo what Elsa says. We have been blown away by almost all of the teachers we’ve worked with in Ypsi. That said, the cards are stacked against them. When I met with some teachers at Perry a few weeks ago, the pay cut all the teachers in Ypsi are taking next year — they are talking about ten to twenty-five percent — TWENTY-FIVE PERCENT! — came up. When I asked if they were looking for work elsewhere, one of them said, “There’s nowhere else to go.” It’s sad, but true. If we continue to undermine the importance of educators — and education, by proxy — honestly, I don’t even know how to finish that sentence.

The sad fact is that there are so few resources, an “easy,” or even “easily summed up” solution that is realistic feels impossible, at least at an administrative level. But that doesn’t take into account the whole adage about how “it takes a village.” In my mind, this is the solution. There are so many capable, caring adults in Ypsilanti and the surrounding area who really love their community. We need to tap into that resource, and come up with creative ways to support our schools, our teachers, and our students.

I’m biased, and I think that volunteering at 826michigan is a great way to start, but it’s certainly not the ONLY way. There are a number of amazing organizations — Growing Hope and Community Records, just to name the first two that spring to mind — making positive changes in our area AND trying to make it as easy as possible for anyone interested to help.

Maria:
Every day I see new young couples walking with strollers in Ypsi. They have likely been drawn here by the uber-cheap housing prices and its proximity to Ann Arbor. But in five years time, too many of those young parents choose to move elsewhere because of the perception (threatening to become a reality) that YPSD is a sub-par district. This is a HUGE problem, not just for the schools, but for the community as a whole. A city with failing schools will never pull itself out of financial distress, because while it may attract young people, it will never keep them. The challenge is that currently our community’s relationship to its schools is terribly broken, because folks who don’t have kids in the system just aren’t invested in it. But they need to be, because our schools are just like our parks, streets, and libraries, they are public spaces where people from sometimes radically different backgrounds are brought together in a single shared enterprise: The development and nurturing of citizenship and social responsibility in the youngest members of our community. It’s not enough though, for people to just volunteer, they’ve got to commit to transformational change in our schools, and for that, they have to have some skin in the game. There’s a lot of hand-wringing among progressives with children, who want their kids to experience as much from education as possible. They worry that testing regimes, overburdened teachers, and large class sizes will result in an uninspired “cookie cutter” education that will dampen their child’s creativity. Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that, as Elsa and Amy have pointed out, incredible things are going on in our schools, largely due to the creativity of our teachers — the truth is that school is about much more than simply the curriculum, it is about learning how to negotiate the differences of race, age, class, gender, and sexuality in a public space; it’s about learning what our community really looks like, and figuring out how to negotiate between individual desires and community needs. Public schools are a microcosm of the public sphere, and we need to make sure that they represent the kind of public that we want to be a part of. Do we want a public in which some people have choices and others do not? When we allow the schools to be someone else’s problem, when we sit back and bemoan the “school to prison” pipeline, or tsk-tsk the standardization of learning, and send our children to private schools that provide the kind of “educational environment” in which they will flourish, we are implicitly accepting the reality that has been handed to us by the ruling class (1 percent). Indeed we are helping to CREATE that reality. So I think we need to think long and hard about the vision of community that we want to see in Ypsilanti, and then figure out a way to bring that about in our schools. Is racial reconciliation important to that vision? Then let’s start thinking about incorporating social justice into our pedagogical and administrative agenda. Is sustainability and respect for the environment one of our core values? Then let’s make sure that all of our schools train students to understand the importance of balance in our ecosystem.
We need to stop throwing our hands up in the air in despair, and start taking back the schools — for our children’s sake and for the sake of our community.

4. Call to action: What can readers do to help?

Elsa: Let’s focus on what the teachers I see everyday are doing right, and let’s support them in any way we can. Donate classroom supplies, volunteer your time, get involved in school board discussions — do something to invest in your local public education.

Amy: Volunteer! It is easy to lament the current state of public education in this country (and this area). And we SHOULD BE lamenting it! But even better than standing around talking about it is doing something about it. Find an organization that fits with your interests and join! Or, if you want to start your own initiative, find a need, and then find a way to fill it.

Maria: First, learn about what is actually going on in Ypsi’s public schools. Visit the schools, talk to teachers and principals; as Elsa said, great things are happening in individual classrooms, and they could be models for the district as a whole. Second, I think a series of community-wide conversations about the role of schools in building and sustaining functional small communities like Ypsilanti would be a great start!

We hope to provide ongoing conversations on this topic, so check back in a few weeks for more information about the situation in Ypsilanti public schools. Email thestaple@826michigan.org with your own YPSD-related questions for subsequent articles.

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